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Race is on for a vaccine

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“The WHO has not found where the virus comes from and the risk of mutation is unclear, but its ability to spread is growing,”

Chinese Ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian.

Chinese scientists are racing against time to develop a vaccine against the Coronavirus. In what has become a gargantuan battle between humans and nature, the Coronavirus has now spread to 23 countries with 17 205 confirmed cases of infection in China alone, and 146 confirmed cases elsewhere.

There are an additional 21 558 suspected new cases in China, and 361 people have died from the virus, although the number of people who have recovered are now three times more than those who have died.

The Chinese government has made containing the virus its top priority.

“This is a very serious epidemic and deadly virus,” Chinese Ambassador Lin Songtian told a media briefing in South Africa yesterday.

“The WHO has not found where the virus comes from and the risk of mutation is unclear, but its ability to spread is growing,” Lin said.

According to Lin the peak of the virus is expected in the next couple of days.

In Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, the population of 11 million is on virtual lockdown, with public transport suspended since January 23rd, and all departure points at the airport and train station have been closed.

Cinemas, museums and parks remain closed and residents have been asked to stay at home.

Over 1 000 army trucks are being used to transport supplies into Wuhan, and China is aiming to increase its production of protective face masks from 20 million to 180 million by the end of the month. Over 100 hotels in Wuhan have opened their doors free of charge to medical staff.

“Our Vice Premier in charge of health has stayed in Wuhan to coordinate prevention,” Lin said. Within a week the Chinese government managed to build a hospital with 1 000 beds, which opened its doors yesterday.

An aggressive nationwide public education campaign is underway on how to prevent the spread of the virus, and strict measures have been taken at the country’s borders to check people’s temperatures and travel history.

Group tours of the country have also been suspended in order to reduce passenger flows.

The WHO declared the Coronavirus to be a public health emergency of international concern, but has applauded China’s efforts at containment. It is said that China is setting a new standard for outbreak response.

The Ambassador expressed concern about the fact that European countries and the US have evacuated their citizens from China, as this has the potential to transmit the virus in cases that are undetected.

The imperative is to contain the virus and for people to remain where they are until the situation has been brought under control. Japan, for example, evacuated several hundred of its nationals, but the number of infected has now climbed from 11 to 20.

There is a very real concern that if the virus spreads to countries with weak health systems the consequences to human life could be catastrophic. But with political will countries can take extensive precautions. “In the past we managed to build a new hospital in Liberia in 28 days,” Lin said.

Currently there are 3 000 South African students in China, 165 of which are in Hubei province. The health of the students is being tracked daily, and to date there have been no cases of infections.

Lin reiterated the risk involved in flying South Africans from the epicentre of the crisis back home, saying it is much safer to stay there where the government has sophisticated hospitals set up to treat patients.

For students to come back home also presents a serious potential risk to the South African public.

“China is ready to jointly deal with any infections that may emerge in South Africa and has been in close contact with the Ministry of Health,” Lin said.